Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

An excerpt from Dana H. Allin and Steven N. Simon's new book.

A problem with the Palestinians is that too few of them may be capable of the generosity of understanding contained in Martin Luther King’s appeal to white America. Many, perhaps most, Palestinians are trapped in their own competing narrative of al Nakba, suffering, and the imperative of justice. To be clear, this narrative is not altogether false, but Israelis of good will are understandably skeptical of how it could be the basis of genuine reconciliation.

This is where America remains so important. America, of all nations in the world, is not only Israel’s most powerful protector; it is also the one powerful country that emotionally intuits the legitimacy of the Zionist project. It understands, as Peter Beinart has put it, that while there is a tension, there is no insoluble contradiction between a Jewish state for a historically stateless and persecuted people, and a democratic state of equal rights for Jewish and Arab citizens. America’s acceptance of this compatibility is grounded in a bipartisan tradition that combines conservative and liberal values. Conservatives bring to their support for Israel their regard for tradition, for religious values, and for national security. Liberals bring an emphasis on sympathy for the oppressed and downtrodden; sensitivity to racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination; and an emphasis on rights, diversity, and economic security. American friendship with Israel helps to legitimize its unique tensions—between a religious state and a modern secular state; and between its humane values and its military necessities. But America’s legitimizing role is threatened, both by the American polarization in which conservatives and liberals no longer recognize the other side’s values, and by trends in Israel that could make it unrecognizable to its American friends.

Even if they deny that they are culpable in causing it, many Israelis worry about their growing international isolation. If Israel’s illiberal evolution can be stopped, America could play a useful role in ending that isolation, first by reconciling Israel and Europe. The history is unbelievably dark, but there are also good memories. Israel started as a European outpost; Ashkenazi settlers, however traumatized, brought with them a cherished European culture; in the 1950s and 1960s there was a fashionable ideological interchange among sister socialist parties, as well as a stylish buzz about the Israeli experiment in modernism. And whatever the extent of anti-Semitism in their diverse and troubled populations, most European leaders have made a good-faith effort to exercise their responsibilities as inheritors of the continent where the Holocaust occurred, and they have understood that these responsibilities include maintaining a special relationship with Israel. But those leaders, who include Germany’s Angela Merkel, are becoming more critical as Israeli policies make the relationship harder to sustain politically.

Dana H. Allin is a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), where he is editor of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. Steven N. Simon is a writer, diplomat and policymaker. He previously served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House, advising President Obama on U.S.-Israel relations throughout the Arab Spring.

Image: President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 18, 2009. Flickr/The White House